Football: Northwestern scores 14 in the 4th quarter, upsets No. 13 Iowa 21-17

Jonah L. Rosenblum and Jonah L. Rosenblum

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EVANSTON – Northwestern’s win over Iowa was as much a soap opera as it was a football game.

On one hand, the Wildcats rallied from 10 down to defeat the 13th-ranked Hawkeyes. On the other, they lost their star player, junior quarterback Dan Persa, for the season, as he had to be helped off the field following his game-winning touchdown pass.

Things looked bleak for NU (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) as it entered the fourth quarter trailing 17-7, but somehow Persa found a way to lift the Cats to a 21-17 victory on Senior Day.

“When it’s a one-score game, we feel like we’re going to win all those games,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The guys are saying ‘Cat-time.’ It’s just an attitude about our program: In close games, we find a way to win.”

Down 17-14 with 4:08 to play, NU’s game-winning drive began at its own nine-yard line, but the poor field position didn’t faze Persa. On a third-and-four, he pulled off a 22-yard run that brought the Cats to midfield. He continued to carry NU down the field, scrambling for four yards on a critical third-and-two followed by a 21-yard pass to redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy.

Persa finished off the drive with an arcing 20-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Demetrius Fields, who fought off Hawkeyes cornerback Micah Hyde in the end zone to make the spectacular touchdown grab.

“I don’t remember what I did on the play,” Fields said. “I remember the ball up in the air and I remember going to get it.”

Yet, after the play, despite seemingly minimal contact from Iowa’s defenders, Persa “heard something pop,” according to Fitzgerald. As it turns out, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and had to be helped off the field.

He is expected to undergo surgery Saturday night, and is out for the season.

There was something unjust about Persa not being to celebrate with his teammates as well as the fans who stormed the field after the game.

“If there’s one thing about Dan, he puts everything he can into the team,” Fields said. “If he was in the training room cheering, we felt it.”

As has been customary this season, NU got off to a quick start Saturday, scoring first for the ninth time in 10 games.

After forcing Iowa (7-3, 4-2) into a three-and-out on the first drive of the game, Persa was picture-perfect on the Cats’ first drive, completing all three of his passes and scrambling for 35 yards, including a two-yard touchdown run that gave NU a 7-0 lead.

But the Cats offense stalled and the Hawkeyes responded with 17 unanswered points, beginning with a field goal towards the end of the first half and ending in two consecutive third-quarter touchdown drives, bringing back images from last week’s collapse against Penn State.

Iowa gained the lead on its first possession of the second half, needing just seven plays to drive 75 yards down the field. Iowa took advantage of NU’s susceptible run defense as running back Adam Robinson picked up 34 yards on four consecutive carries. Stanzi then followed with three consecutive completions, the final one a five-yard touchdown pass to Marvin McNutt to put Iowa ahead 10-7.

After an NU three-and-out, Stanzi and Robinson went back to work. Robinson once again picked up the early yardage with a critical third-down conversion, and then Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi followed with a 70-yard touchdown over the middle to wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.

Already down 17-7, things got worse for NU, as Persa threw a laser over the middle that deflected off the hands of freshman wide receiver Tony Jones and was snared by Iowa linebacker Jeremiha Hunter.

The Hawkeyes drove into Cats territory, potentially poised to take a three-possession lead, but then Stanzi threw a wounded duck down the field that was intercepted by junior safety Brian Peters.

“We lost because I threw a stupid interception, and they switched the momentum,” Stanzi said. “I didn’t see the right guy.”

The Cats took advantage of Stanzi’s mistake, driving 85 yards down the field for a touchdown. Persa was nearly perfect on the drive, completing 7-of-8 passes for 72 yards, and he was complemented by several strong runs by redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy.

The touchdown pass to Fields gave the Cats the lead, but the Hawkeyes still had more than a minute remaining to save their Big Ten title chances. Sure enough, Iowa drove into Cats’ territory, but a crucial six-yard sack by junior defensive end Vince Browne helped stuff Iowa’s comeback attempt. After Stanzi’s final pass deflected just past the reach of diving wide receiver Keenan Davis, NU’s victory was sealed.

Persa played another remarkable game for the Cats, completing 32-of-43 passes for 318 yards. He also scrambled for a touchdown and his 358 all-purpose yards accounted for more than 85 percent of his team’s offense.

“He’s playing as well as anybody in the conference,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s very dangerous and will hurt you in a lot of ways.”

Junior superback Drake Dunsmore recorded eight catches for 65 yards while Ebert caught six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.

After crumbling in the third quarter, NU’s defense pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter, the first time the Cats pulled off that feat since their 37-3 win over Illinois State.

As part of NU’s defensive improvement, the defense gave up just 101 rushing yards to Iowa, a vast upgrade from the 250 rushing yards it gave up to Penn State. Still, Robinson ran for 108 yards, the fourth 100-yard rusher NU has given up this season.

The victory marked NU’s first over a ranked team this year. The Cats pulled off the win in front of 47,130 fans, marking the first sellout at Ryan Field since NU lost to Ohio State in 2008. After the game, many in the student section rushed the field with some encouragement from players, sending the team off with a raucous celebration.

“Apparently, some other guys had a couple girls, got some hugs, a few kisses in,” Dunsmore said. “I happened to be in the moshpit. I was getting beat up – in the wrong section.”

Perhaps Fields, still marveling over his catch, put Saturday’s game best.

“A game-winning catch is a game-winning catch,” Fields said. “But the way the season’s been going, it’s all come to a head with this.”